Ethnic Power Sahring: South Africa's Model

Proportional representation plays an important role in rebuilding countries racked by ethnic conflict

WHEN a violent ethnic conflict ends, one of the the greatest unknowns is how long the calm can be maintained before hostilities and the horrors of ethnic retribution resume. South Africa's new constitutional order provides an exceptional example to other nations racked by civil and ethnic strife; the interim constitution engenders stability by forcing divergent groups to put their energies into constructive power sharing.

The framers of the South African constitution were guided by two key principles.

First, the new order had to protect all ethnic groups. In effect, the government promised to guard the liberties of former oppressors as well as those oppressed, and to pay heed to the haves as well as the have-nots.

The power-sharing elements of the new South African constitution recognized that the powerful white minority business community would have to play a significant role in post-apartheid South Africa if the country was to provide its black majority population with decent jobs, dignified housing, and an education system that nurtured the talents of all. The African National Congress, as the black majority's chief representative, accepted this key tenet; all significant groups now are represented in Parliament and in the executive branch of government. Currently, six members of the old apartheid National Party, led by F. W. de Klerk, sit in President Nelson Mandela's Cabinet, along with three members of Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party.

Second, Parliament needed to be structured around some form of proportional representation, which provides a truer guide to party strength than the Anglo-American method of single-member districts and winner-take-all results. The case against the winner-take-all electoral system and for proportional representation has been made overwhelmingly by the example of newly democratizing states of southern Africa. The United States State Department largely blamed the winner-take-all presidential election in Angola for the collapse of peace plans there and for the subsequent bloody conflict. As a 1993 report states, ``both [Angolan President Jose Eduardo] dos Santos and [leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, Jonas] Savimbi were vying for the only prize worth having.'' When Mr. Savimbi lost the election, he resumed his violent struggle.

This year, another newly democratizing African state, Malawi, planted the seed for conflict by using Anglo-American single-member districts as the basis for electing its first Parliament. The system vastly exaggerated party support in certain areas, giving the impression that one party ``owned'' the south of Malawi and another the north, leaving the former ruling party of Hastings Kamuzu Banda dominant in the center. The stage has now been set for the exclusion of one or more regions from power, which could lead to regional and ethnic conflict.

BY contrast, Namibia recently adopted proportional representation and has made successful strides forward in ethnic power-sharing and political harmony - as has South Africa.

The alternative to power-sharing, ethnic separation based on smaller homogeneous states, offers no hope for a stable future; these states have given up all efforts to find common ground. Thus they perpetuate isolation and distrust, leading to further conflict. If the pressures for hostility outweigh the interests of accommodation, even power sharing will not work. But, as seen in South Africa, negotiated constitutional guidelines can form the basis of hope for ethnically divided states elsewhere.

A good constitution cannot guarantee success, but a bad one will do nothing to prevent the cycle of ethnic violence now occurring around the world.

The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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